Annoyance

Let’s all work together

I’ve been traveling around the country a lot lately, teaching improv in all different cities. And one thing I’ve noticed in some communities is that improv can feel like gang warfare.

There are theaters that don’t want their students studying or performing at other venues. They are protecting their turf. I get it, they are scared. They think there is only so much money, so many improvisers and so much audience to go around.

That is not true. In fact, if they all work together they would all be better off. I have seen it first-hand.

For years, it was exactly the same story here in Chicago. Luckily, in the past decade or so, things have changed in the Chicago improv community for the better.

When I started out, things were very territorial. You were identified with the place you performed at, and if you wanted to go perform at another theater, you felt shunned and ostracized. When a new theater or group popped up and gained popularity, people became threatened. It was definitely an “us against them” mentality.

I remember some of my friends from iO-Chicago, where I started out, would give me shit for joining The Annoyance Theater, the same way we gave people shit when Second City didn’t hire someone from the iO. I didn’t dare hang out with people from ComedySportz because we all felt we were superior.

In a lot of ways, the improv community was segregated.

Slowly, however, things began changing and the walls came crashing down. The size of community could not be contained. The new generation of improvisers moving to Chicago did not care where they were performing. They just wanted to get good at the art form. Thank God for that.

Today, the Chicago improv community is thriving with The Annoyance and iO-Chicago moving to bigger, snazzier spaces and the Second City Training Center expansion coming soon. There are now a slew of smaller storefront theaters – Under the Gun Theater, The Playground, Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, The Den Theater, and Bug House, to name a few — that provide improvisers more opportunities to perform.

By adding more theaters, you’d think that they would all be competing for the same tiny pool of improvisers, but in fact, the more theaters there are, the more improvisers there seem to be. Imagine that?

This is all possible because of the cross pollination of the theaters and training centers. When people come to Chicago they are expected to take classes at at least three or four places. They get to immerse themselves in the art form. If they don’t make a Harold team at one of the big theaters, they have a thriving indie scene where they can create something of their own. If they don’t get hired by Second City, they may end up finding a home at The Annoyance. The opportunities are endless.

I am not saying Chicago is perfect by any means. Yes, there still is healthy competition and gossip among the theaters, and there can be some arrogance, but it has improved greatly over the years.

My wish for other cities is that they see that having more improv theaters is better for the community, not worse. That encouraging your students to play and to take classes with everyone will make them better improvisers who will do better shows and hopefully develop a following.

After all, we all embrace the “yes, and…” concept on stage. Why not in our improv communities, as well?

3 replies
  1. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Dear Jimmy,

    Here Here! (or rather There There!) – we practically get Chicago’s weather a day or so later in New York, so hopefully we’ll also get more wind of this communal vibe. I have seen things getting better here too, via many more opportunities in Indie places and cross-theater pollination. I guess we’ll just have to continue looking up to our Big Improv Brother in Chi-town until we create our own perfect storm.

    Cheers,

    Stuart

    Reply
  2. Jim Smetana
    Jim Smetana says:

    You hit the bullseye again, Jim. I remember when I first started watching plays in Chicago how all the companies helped out one another: Body Politic, Victory Gardens, Wisdom Bridge, the list goes on. And they all prospered. And the actors? Bill Petersen, Gary Cole, Rondi Reed, Natalie West, Gary Sinise ,this list goes on too. Well, they all did pretty good!

    Reply
  3. Frank Angelini
    Frank Angelini says:

    This was a timely read for me Jimmy, thanks for writing. 3 years ago I ‘started’ (it’s a more complicated story than that, but that’s for another time) the first improv theater in NYC (The Queen’s Secret Improv Club aka The QSIC) that was not curriculum driven. In fact we have no classes at all and instead focus on casting our own house teams without any improv-course bureaucratic requirements for auditioning players, as well as curating and providing existing indie teams with regular, weekly performance opportunities and lengthy runs. I felt like an improv pariah almost immediately after we opened, and still sometimes do. People I came up with at various schools became distant and acted weird when we were in or around the locations or cliques of their ‘home’ theater, and I got little to no support from almost anyone I knew that was a status equal and up (and my status was maybe a 5 of clubs at best). Once it became clear QSIC wasn’t to be a short-lived fluke and we achieved greater consciousness in the improv scene, I began to hear occasional stories of established performers actively marginalizing our programming, dismissing me as unqualified to do what I was doing; after all I wasn’t ever a major personality or faculty at any school’s theater, and even propagating crazy rumors about me personally that I still hear attached to me to this day. It was a very anxiety-filled and isolating time where I would often wake up with night sweats, but more importantly that taught me a lot about what people are willing to do to protect their stakes and organizations or further their own agendas within them.
    But things did start to change. As our reputation increased and we got systems and people in place enabling us to expand (to now 6 nights a week!), I found an entire new generation of hungry performers who had no hang-ups, ego, or fear of the new, and in fact were eager, appreciative and supportive of what we were doing at The QSIC for the indie community in NYC and for the people who couldn’t afford to tear through classes at every theater in town in hopes to land a spot on a house team.
    Nowadays, I will see teams that met and bonded during a QSIC night playing in shows on each others bills at bar shows around town, or even at The PIT, Magnet, UCB, and Annoyance NY shows when they have taken no classes and were largely uninvolved outside of their immediate improv network beforehand. And there are even other indie-centric comedy theaters that have opened in our wake, notably the Tree House Theater, that are doing very well for themselves also.
    However it is a very slow, painful, and thankless process in a city that is already mercilessly difficult on artists and their endeavors. Progress is imperceptible in any immediately quantifiable sense which makes it hard to generate morale for long time players and challenging to prevent forward momentum from slowing. You really have to look at change over months or years to measure it.
    As such, people are still sometimes leery to get involved, pitch shows, or find out more about what we do. People still often (but no longer always!) leave our house teams as soon as they get cast on one at a mainstream theater or if their team isn’t amazing right away, or worse they decide to leave a house team without even letting me, the artistic director, know that they are leaving. By the way that’s just insulting. Speaking of, indie teams still occasionally cancel shows last minute, as though we shouldn’t expect or demand the same respect and standards any other professional comedy theater would. On a personal level, challenges include wondering if I have unintentionally hurt myself by pissing off people with legit comedy connections, power or influence and also if the amount of personal time and energy I sacrifice is worth it; since it essentially does nothing for my comedy career and I make zero dollars doing this. But when I’m feeling down and at the end of my rope ready to quit and dismantle all the work and dedication and hilarious shows put in by many, many people at this point, it helps to see a post like yours. Although we have never met, having read your writings for many years and knowing that a respected improvisor such as yourself is an advocate for exactly what I am trying to do is incredibly heartening. It feels like an invisible ally has my back in the internal war of self-doubt and the external improv business wars, and makes it easier to truly believe that maybe I can be a pioneer. Maybe I actually am making a difference in eroding the political dividing lines that I think hold us back from a better connected and progressive improv community in NYC.
    At the end of the day no matter what the fate of QSIC ends up being, I will always believe that this self-imposed improv quarantine you are talking about in this blog is a lonely room that needs to be broken out of for true progress. Personally, I think the cult-like dynamics caused by the houseteam-carrot* dangle business model that most curriculum based improv schools are complicit in propagating is the —root*— cause. The comedy acolytes fervor is fueled by the dream of celebrity and their faith in the godlike brands that are perceived will enable that to happen. This is a way of operating that rewards a few, but ends up disillusioning, pushing out and discouraging many more people who may very well have become successful comedians if they stuck to it even when times were tough, and failure seemed constant. But these fence people need places to play and a reason other than constant class taking to keep them engaged and inspired. For these people to stay in improv, and for the artform to truly evolve, you absolutely need some unbiased mixing grounds where you take the students used to watching the homogenous styles you start to see develop and stagnate at every major improv institution, and expose the student/performer community at large to other styles of play that may be new and maybe even inspiring to them while at the same time giving them a place to get reps and grow a great team.
    Thank you for inspiring me with your story of how a scene can truly change for the better, even one with a looong history of divisiveness, and in the motherland of improv to boot. To Improv!

    Reply

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